The sun loomed overhead, casting pinkish-white light on them. Screw my ancestors. Lucky bastards never realized how nice it is to be baked by a golden sun. Pink is supposed to be on goddamn flowers. Washi had never wished so dearly for the sensation of his own sweat. If all the moisture was going to leave his body, it ought to at least kiss him goodbye. Great, sweat-kissed. Add that to the list of things I’ll never hear the end of when I say it in my sleep.
“Hey, guys,” freckle-tenor said, “I miss the mushrooms.” A rock shifted under his feet and nearly landed him in a less-than-cuddly lizard’s face. On planets other than Savar, you’d say it was coincidence.
“No, you don’t,” Peregrine said. “Your problem, Private Herrington-” He stopped under a rock outcropping, shielded from view if someone appeared atop the ravines around them. He pursed his lips. The rest of the unit paused in the open for a few seconds before it occurred to them they should take cover too. They’d been out in the field too long with no contact. It’d been a week since the fighter’s flyover and they were getting sloppy.
“Sir?” Herrington asked. The kid looked like such a dork. Eyes constantly huge, skin pale as a white wine and almost as see-through. Well, Washi assumed it was similar, though wines were another of those Earther things. You wouldn’t call a white wine white if it were yellow, would you? That wouldn’t make sense. They’d been in the field for three weeks and no tan on this guy. Weird. It was just weird, all of it. Washi thought back to the gashed rock. Something about that seemed so important. Great, now I’m distracted and sloppy. Adding insult to injury, a tiny beige worm-thing escaped from his satchel with a piece of jerkey in its mandibles. Three insects tumbled out in pursuit. Washi spun mid-stride and brought his boot crashing down on the whole dumb mess.
“He’s bothered that you’re getting talkative,” Washi explained, since Peregrine stayed quiet. “Peregrine thinks every sudden behavioral change is someone getting ready to snap.” To be fair, he had reason to. At this point Washi’s quips all consisted of gallows humor or scathing anti-jokes about the Defeds. The rest of the unit was not in a better mood. Actually, freckle-tenor seemed like the only one of the bunch who wasn’t angry all the time. With everyone else hunching and him only slouching a bit, he even looked taller. He caught Washi eyeing him and cringed down.
“Someone fucking explain to me why it is we had to sneak fifty goddamn miles through ass-end backcountry shithole after ass-end backcountry shithole when you shitbirds have fucking spaceships,” one of the Wealthies demanded. “How the fuck’s that make any sense, huh?” Washi’s main takeaway was that someone needed to invent some new curse words.
“Why don’t you ask your old CO why he left you to hold the line in the middle of nowhere and probably get pumped full of jizz by the Defeds after they killed you?” Duman snapped back. Under normal circumstances Washi would’ve said that was going too far. Right at the moment, he barely cared.
“How about everyone saves it for the Defeds and you stop squabbling,” Peregrine said, emotionless. That was a bad sign. The boss always had a sardonic waft when he spoke, or he used that booming strongman voice to shut everyone up. He only talked so cold, so inhuman when he was looking down the scope at somebody. Somebody he wanted dead.
“Sir, we’ve got movement ahead,” Sawyer said over comms. Freckle-tenor had spent the last few nights’ downtime rewiring everything so the Wealthies and the Raptors could speak on the same channels.
Peregrine beckoned Washi. They moved up to where Sawyer lay at the crest of a small ridge, peering through shafts of coarse grass. A column of Defeds (well, more of a vaguely linear gaggle) trod up a path cut into the ridge. A series of steep switchbacks worked their way down to the floor of a plain below. They were so closely cut that the second hid any view of switchbacks further down, as well as the closest part of the plain. No, Washi realized, It’s a crater. A city-sized crater. It was easily thirty miles from here to the opposite side, the floor cut by thousands of cracks, chasms and even small, dead volcanoes. He’d have taken more time to stare, but the Defeds were getting close. Washi selected a pair of jackasses in color-coordinated tiger stripe armor as his first targets while the others moved up to the ridge.
“Rough estimate, there’s about 80 of ’em,” Peregrine whispered. “We don’t know if they’ve got comms, so we’d best kill them all.” He set his rifle aside and leveled the revolver he’d snagged from that first kill. Three weeks. Feels a lot longer than that.
Sawyer started breathing heavily. “Keep it in your pants, Sawyer,” Washi muttered.
“Keep opening your mouth and I’ll put it there instead,” Sawyer countered. Bastard. I walked right into that. “Besides, I’m not getting off on this.” Washi found that hard to believe from the way Sawyer’s chapped lips tugged at his cheeks. His eyes were focused, predatory. Maybe he’s not getting off, but he’s definitely hungry. Washi paced his breathing as the first Defeds past by them.
“Probably gonna say it’s better than sex anyway, right? Only not the same? More like a drug, maybe?” Freckle–er, Herrington cut in suddenly. Washi hadn’t even heard the kid move in to his right.
“Kid, now you’re making me paranoid,” Washi said. “You barely say anything for three weeks and suddenly you’re trying to screw with Sawyer.”
“Let him answer the question, would you?” Herrington asked. “I’m curious about his answer.” Was his voice deeper? Washi shook his head. Stupid. I’m being stupid.
“Yeah,” Sawyer said. “Yeah, I guess that pretty much covers it.” Herrington nodded as if he’d already know the answer and leaned into his rifle. This kid’s not what he wants us to think he is, Washi thought. Is he a Tarsian plant? Defed, even? Secret psycho?
“Quit staring at me, will ya?” Herrington quavered. “I’m nervous enough about this as it is.” Washi wanted to believe the weird behavior was just nerves. The geeky types were often like that. They seemed like total pansies until someone pushed them too far. The shift back, though, that didn’t click. He’d need to keep an eye on the kid. The center of the Defed column was just about past. Peregrine pulled the trigger. It wasn’t much of a firefight. Someone else iced Washi’s second mark even as he shot the first. At point-blank range with tens of thousands of rounds per minute from thirty guns, the Defeds all died in less than four seconds.
“Good shooting,” Peregrine said. “Right, salvage detail, get in there and strip any ammo. I’d especially like some more grenades.”
Before the ambush could break up and slide down the defile, however, distant cries and rumbling froze them all in place. Peregrine held up a hand and cautiously moved over the ridge. He peeked over the side and darted back so quickly Washi hardly saw it. Peregrine had taken two steps when the entire inside face of nearest switchback rippled with bullet impacts. Peregrine barely made it back to the ridge before the staggering fusillade blew through the lip of the path and started a small landslide.
“Change in plans, we are not salvaging shite!” Peregrine snapped. “Everyone move! Make for fallback position three! Raptors, everybody drop a mine on my signal!” Thirty soldiers pelted back down into the ravines. The echos and rasp of gravel under their boots lanced any hope Washi might have for a clean getaway. As they rounded a red-brown corner, he saw the first Defed troops crest the ridge and call out. Bitchcock, he cursed inwardly. Does that work? Oh, who gives a damn!
Almost in unison, the Raptors turned and threw mines into the handiest positions they could find. It was a well-rehearsed drill: the rearmost six threw theirs and moved ahead while the next six waited, then threw theirs. Peregrine, Washi, Duman and three operatives threw theirs last. The mines were spaced in little crevices or behind rocks, a couple under bushes. They primed themselves five seconds after being thrown.
“Think that’ll hold ’em?” Washi asked as they ran to catch up with the others.
“Neg, not for long,” Peregrine huffed over some rocks and threw himself from a six-foot drop without breaking stride. “They’ll pause exactly as long as it takes someone to call ’em pussies. We’ll do another band in thirty seconds. After that we hold the rest.” While they ran, they kept an ear open for explosions. That’d be their only way of knowing how far behind the Defeds were. About twenty seconds on, they head the first rumbles. There wasn’t much delay before the eighteenth charge went; about forty seconds total. The Raptors lost five laying down a second set of charges.
“Let’s hope we’re in better shape than they are,” Peregrine said.
“Wouldn’t count on it, boss,” Washi said. “We may be the professionals, but these people are hardened survivors. Shit soldiers, but they can run for a long fucking time.” From the thunder behind them, there were hundreds. Probably thousands, in fact.”
“There aren’t supposed to be any large units in this area,” Peregrine griped.
“So Intelligence was wrong,” Washi said. “What else is new?” For minutes they ran as fast as they could, never stopping even if they stumbled. Herrington tripped again, rolled to his feet and took off at a run without pause. Sawyer would lag back as if planning a sudden countercharge, then shake himself and run back to the front of the line. Peregrine and Washi brought up the rear. They pounded along at a matched pace. The Defed pursuit echoed louder through the canyons. He unslung his assault rifle and started back.
“Hirosuke, this is not the time for a dramatic last stand,” Peregrine said.
“Last stand, no, dramatic yes,” Washi said. “I’ve got a lot of fancy parts I can’t use if I’m supposed to keep pace with you guys.”
Peregrine stopped. “You die out there-”
“You’ll make me regret it, yeah,” Washi grinned. “Like I said, what else is new?” He tossed Peregrine a salute jumped forty feet up to the hollow between two leaning rock pillars. Then, just to be as unfair as possible, he cloaked. You didn’t use a cloaking device when you were working with your unit. It was way too easy to move close to them as if you were still visible, instinctively staying close to buddies. Then they usually ended up shooting you by accident. Not a great moment for anyone concerned. The colors of his uniform and dry skin faded into the surrounding rock. As hot as today was, they’d think he was just heat distortion even if they saw him.The first of the Defeds arrived right on schedule in a tumbling, whooping, idiotic mass. Washi leveled his rifle–no more than a ripple of light–and waited for the right moment. He didn’t want the ones right in front; it was easy to get a unit reorganized if it got hit where the momentum was. You wanted to catch the ones in the center, force the guys in front to double back and the ones behind to push forward. He took a look over his shoulder; more Defeds behind him. This was going to take some smooth work. He waited until he stopped seeing raiders with guns held at the shoulder. Now they came with them hanging to one side or even still holstered. Perfect.
Washi plucked a grenade from his pouch and tossed it out behind him. The instant it exploded, he fired a full magazine into a group of Defeds. Thirteen dropped; an unlucky woman with a smashed kneecap and shredded artery rolled on the ground, spraying her compatriots with blood.
“Shut that bitch up!” a hulking gunman bellowed. “Where the fuck are they coming from?!” Washi pulled a smoke grenade off his bandoleer and drew his dagger as he activated thermals. A flick of his left wrist wreathed the entire squabbling group in red smoke. He didn’t need to kill many of them, just anyone who looked imposing enough to have authority. Of course, that was hard to gauge when everyone was just white-hot outlines on a grey background. Some of the rocks were hot enough to show up too, which didn’t help much. Washi switched to bioelectric scans instead. This was higher-level stuff, the kind of thing only Tarse had. Instead of solid white blobs, he now saw humans within the smoke as sparkling webs: their nervous systems. He went for Mr. Roids first with a stab from side of the neck to the other and dodged the ensuing carotid spurts. He pulled a pistol from the man’s side and empty the magazine into the crowd of signatures in the space of a second, then shoved it into the dying man’s meat-fist. He darted out the other side of the cloud as the whole thing erupted in a howling lead storm. Two more Defeds caught dagger strokes as he ducked into an iron-streaked hollow in one corner of the ravines. Washi shoved the dagger–still bloody–between his teeth, reloaded his rifle and opened up on another group of Defeds. They stumbled to a halt even as he mowed down the first three coming from another passage.
“The hell are they coming from?!” someone screamed.
“It’s Downey’s people! They’re turning on us!” An emaciated runt turned and blew the speaker’s head off, then promptly disintegrated in a torrent of lead. Defed logic at its finest: How dare you call me a traitor! I’ll kill you for that! Washi snickered and darted into a nearby tunnel. As the cries outside built up and the roar of battle grew loud enough to shake pebbles loose, he came to a branch. He took it right and emerged next to another group of Defeds clustered in a grotto around a pond. Three of them trained rifles on the entrance.
“I’m telling you, Mercer’s making his move,” a war-painted woman mumbled around a blackened cigar stub. “Ammo up, people.”
Washi moved up to a man standing by himself with a submachine gun at his side. No one was looking. He wrapped his hand around the man’s own and hissed in his ear, “Hey bud, it’s Downey.” As he finished, “lemme borrow your arm,” he swept the horrified raider’s arm up and sprayed the inside of the cave. The SMG fired small bullets, but there were a hell of a lot of them spewed so fast he couldn’t pick out individual shots. Washi backed away from the man as the moaning and screaming started.
“It wasn’t me! Downey made m-”
The unfortunate bastard died to some decidedly unfriendly fire. Washi moved back out and took the other branch this time. He already had another smoke grenade unhooked and tossed it into another straggle of hostiles the moment he saw them. He sprinted up behind one ragged man and shouted, “It’s the signal! Get ’em for Mercer!”
“Oh, c’mon, it wasn’t me! I don’t even sound like-” The Defed’s complaints ended in bullets, as was quickly becoming the norm around here. Just for good measure, Washi bobbed through another group and let off bursts from his assault rifle. He made a point of ducking behind likely victims and firing his rifle from near their own weapons. When he ran out of bullets, he clambered behind some boulders and peeked out to admire his work. The ravines belched smoke and fire without end. Every gunner he saw was trading fire with at least two others. Even where there were groups they took cover separately and threw glances over their shoulders at each other. As he watched, a blue-haired woman took offense to the way her erstwhile “buddy” brushed her shotgun with his elbow. She blew a sizable chunk out of his left pec and was immediately knifed by the third member of the trio, who got so caught up in stabbing her repeatedly that he failed to notice a rocket sail out from an archway and make confetti of him. Everywhere Washi looked the enemy had fallen to fighting themselves, and he couldn’t help but laugh at the dumbness of it. He was truly guffawing as he ducked into another cave system and slipped away. Washi hit the mag release on his rifle again and slowly slotted a fresh one in. He wouldn’t need it.
He took his dagger from its place between his teeth, then fist-bumped its grip as he swabbed it dry and sheathed it. He broke into a dead-out sprint and a series of jumps from outcropping to outcropping at a hundred miles an hour.
“A whole division.” Desham did not sound pleased.
“Yes sir. Washi snuck back again earlier. He’s confirmed there’s at least fifteen thousand of ’em left.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“Neg. And they’re on the move again. They don’t know what we hit ’em with, but they’ve figured out it was us. Washi’s trick won’t work twice, I’m afraid.”
“Beautiful. Alright, thanks for keeping us posted. Don’t know how we missed the bastards. We’ve got them on scans now. They’re back on course towards the Kadetsk pocket. Your plans?”
Peregrine shrugged. “Generalized mayhem.” For the next two weeks the Raptors shadowed the Defed division, flitting from one flank to the the other. Each time they appeared, gunned down a handful of troops and were off again into a ravine, up a ridge, or threw tunnels before the Defeds could recover. Peregrine would take out trucks from a mile away with a round through the gas tank, or blow an officer’s head off for having the bad judgment to take a smoke. As the Defeds consolidated and grew more watchful, he made a point of hitting them with a few rounds from a plateau while Washi and the others ambushed from several points at once. For all this, the division ground on. The Raptors shadowed them all the way and waited for the right moment. They were coming up on the Kadetsk Pocket. Soon enough they’d have to find their way through a solid line of Defed positions three miles deep on all sides and a thousand miles in circumference.
And then, of course, not get shot by the Commonwealth.
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